By Stephane Mahe
PUISSEGUIN, France (Reuters) - French investigators at the scene of a crash involving a truck and a coach carrying elderly day-trippers that killed at least 43 people said on Saturday that identifying the victims of France's worst road accident in decades could take weeks.
At least 41 people on the coach taking pensioners on a day excursion were killed shortly before dawn on Friday when it collided head-on with the truck in France's Bordeaux wine-growing region and burst into flames. The truck driver and his three-year old son also died.
"The DNA, teeth, all these elements that are not sensitive to fire will be analyzed," Colonel Patrick Touron of the police's criminal research unit told reporters.
"We will have the identification results and will be able to return the bodies to their families in about three weeks," he said. The exact number of passengers on the coach remained uncertain.
Medical units had managed to extract 12 or 13 bodies from the shell of the bus by mid Saturday afternoon, local police told Reuters. A portion of the narrow, two-lane country road that snakes through the vineyards of the Saint-Emilion region remained cordoned off.
The exact circumstances of the crash remain uncertain. The driver of the bus was among survivors who were able to exit through the doors he opened, according to a source close to the inquiry.
The bus was carrying about 50 pensioners on a ham-tasting excursion and had only just set off from their home region in and around the village of Petit-Palais when the crash occurred.
"We were chatting and there was a shock, it was pitch black, we had to hurry to get out," Jean-Claude Leonardet, 73, one of only eight survivors of the crash, told Le Parisien TV.
Leonardet, interviewed at his home his head wrapped up in a gauze bandage, helped his wife Josette unlock her seatbelt and got out, before returning to the blazing coach to help others.
"We pulled one person who was stuck in the steps, but it was getting so hot, we had to step back, everything was melting down and falling over our heads," he said,
The crash is the deadliest in France since July 1982, when 53 people, mostly children, were killed in a bus crash in Burgundy.
(Additional reporting by Regis Duvignau, Claude Canellas, Marine Pennetier; Writing by Michel Rose; Editing by Richard Balmforth)